Be busy and be positive. How journalism students can best survive this crisis: Paul Wiltshire, University of Gloucestershire
This time last year, the first of our third years had found themselves jobs.
They’d all pretty much completed placements, emerging from their work experience in newsrooms, broadcasting studios and PR offices with renewed confidence and focus.
They were tying up the loose ends of their studies, cracking on with final year project features, surviving the odd wobble, and getting us to review their CVs and career plans.
We were laying our own plans, for one of the best weeks of the year: a final news week, culminating in a One Show-style TV programme, online magazine, and podcast, followed by a gloriously emotional end-of-course celebration.
It felt good. We’d brought them as far as we could, and we were sending them into a world where we had confidence they’d be able to stand on their own two feet.
Things look very different 12 months on.
Our latest final year students will be graduating into an economic recession the likes of which most of us have never seen before. Placements suddenly ceased just before Easter, and some final year projects have had to be hastily redesigned as face-to-face interviewing became largely impossible.
There has been no lack of support for that unlucky cohort: we’re doing regular video personal tutor calls and advice workshops, and we’re lining up plenty of industry guests via Zoom.
But it’s not quite the same.
Our final news week will, we hope, still offer our students the chance to showcase their journalistic skills and instincts, but it won’t quite have the same magic. And that end-of-week, end-of-year, end-of-course, celebration will be a virtual one, where my mission is to recreate that very special and heady cocktail of mixed emotions on Zoom.
And then what?
I always tell students they have life membership of the Paul Wiltshire Support Service. We’re there to advise on job applications, office wobbles, and careers crossroads for as long as graduates need our help.
And this year, that after-care will be needed like never before.
So, what advice is there for those third years – and for all our students at the moment?
The biggest danger is to put yourself into some kind of deep freeze, to go into summer hibernation.
The real world is so difficult – particularly if your travel plans are also on hold, if you’re worried about family members, or if you’re apart from a girlfriend or boyfriend – that hiding under the duvet for the rest of the year seems like a decent plan.
My mantra has been to encourage all our students to cast off those duvets, and to be as creative and productive as they can for the next few months – at least.
Write – blog about life in lockdown, review stuff you care (or don’t care) about, and find news stories about the impact of our new ways of living in your area.
Create – make video shorts, launch podcasts, and produce radio shows.
Consume – read, watch, and listen to journalism. The more you read, the better your writing should become.
Keep your skills fresh – get that shorthand speed, really get to grips with those InDesign short cuts, master that video-editing technique. Even, and I know it’s a cliche, learn a new language.
Network – keep in gentle touch with people you’ve met on placements or news days, interviewed for features, or heard from as guest speakers. Tell them what you’re up to, send them links to blogs and videos. Take an interest in them and their work.
That might involve offering some work or time for free for the moment: it’s not something we’d normally recommend, but these are indeed unprecedented times.
In short, then, be busy, and be positive.
When someone asks What did you do in the lockdown?, you need to have stories to tell.
As always in job interviews, you need those little stories that, just as in the best features, can be employed to tell bigger stories.
This crisis will change the media industry, and not always in a good way. Offices are likely to shut and products will close.
But there will be jobs again.
More than ever, the need for people who can tell stories clearly, and who can connect and communicate, is crucial, and it will be in future. That’s certainly true in public sector PR, but it will be true in many other media fields, too.
When an employer looks for someone to join their team, you can be pretty sure of some of the qualities on their wish list: emotional intelligence, resilience, creativity, determination, resourcefulness – and a sense of humour.
Those are the attributes I’m encouraging our students to show now. These are the muscles that need their own daily exercise regime. They also happen to be the qualities that all of us need to get through this madness.
We don’t know what the future holds, and it’s not healthy to dwell too much on the long-range forecast at the moment.
None of us knows what that awful – and increasingly inaccurate – phrase ‘the foreseeable future’ means.
But one day, one week, one month at a time, we keep going.
And one day, it will be better.
Paul Wiltshire is academic course leader and senior lecturer in journalism at the University of Gloucestershire.
You can follow Paul in Twitter: @Paulwiltshire